Black unemployment is higher now than it was before the Civil Rights Act. Since the Federal Housing Act of ’68 was passed black homeownership has not increased and the wealth gap between whites and blacks has more than tripled. In many ways we’ve lost ground in the age of civil rights and the reasons are clear. Racism has always been a powerful force but unlike in our past, today we are not overcoming it and integration is partly to blame. It certainly opened up opportunities but also duped us into thinking we could live just like white folks and be free. We have opted to enjoy the fruits of integration and rejected the notion that for black progress to continue, we must choose to live in a state of perpetual discomfort and inconvenience.
Black people will never gain ground unless we do the radically inconvenient everyday and in the age of integration we simply resist that. Black homeownership and entrepreneurship will not increase unless black financial institutions have the capital necessary to make strategic investments in black communities. Getting that capital requires us to radically inconvenience ourselves and bank black. Black unemployment will not cease until black businesses thrive and hire black people by the millions. We must inconvenience ourselves and support those businesses, at all cost. Black people will be collectively vulnerable until we bend over backward and forward to grow and strengthen our own institutions — political, social, economic and educational. True black liberation requires us to do a whole lot of stuff the average white person just doesn’t have to do and we don’t want to accept that. Maybe 50 years of stalled progress doesn’t convince you but our greater history should.
It was not convenient for slaves to revolt in search of liberation but they did so, a lot. Before slavery was abolished in 1865 there were hundreds of slave revolts, none of them very convenient — ask Nat Turner. It would have been much more convenient to simply work, eat and not cause trouble but the promise of liberation prompted slaves to risk death and starvation to free their children. Slave revolts helped to push the nation to Civil War, a conflict in which nearly 200,000 black men fought to destroy chattel slavery. They were discriminated against harshly and although willing to take a bullet for Uncle Sam, paid less than white soldiers. All this was very inconvenient but they did it for freedom’s sake.
Dismantling Jim Crow was very inconvenient, as the Montgomery Bus Boycott demonstrated. Rather than ride a segregated bus — which black taxpayers were funding — black maids and other workers literally walked miles each way to work for over a year. It would have been more convenient to ride the bus and hope for change. It would have been more convenient to appeal to the moral conscience of white America while enjoying a comfortable bus ride to work. But those maids were willing to make themselves extremely uncomfortable when they didn’t necessarily have to, for their seed. They understood, like their ancestors who embraced inconvenience to bring down chattel slavery, that black progress was not inevitable. It disturbs me that in the age of integration we are under some strange delusion that we can somehow live normal, convenient lives and still see freedom.
We are no longer in chains or in the back of the bus. Still, numbers don’t lie — too many indicators are moving back and not forward. That next tier of freedom is black communities not relying on others to feed, clothe or sustain them. That next level of freedom is us deciding what will happen in our community and not others — say amen, gentrification. The next step is waking up and not feeling as though white institutions can determine our life outcomes, be they government or private institutions. There is a next level of self determination and based on what we’ve seen the past 50 years, our current course will not get us there. If we continue to live, shop, invest, bank and support institutions based on what is convenient and in line with our white counterparts, we know what the next 50 years will look like.
I relocated to Chicago this past summer after living in the DC area for several years. I lived in Takoma Park, an odd bastion of white liberalism literally situated on the DC line — Takoma Park is a neighborhood in DC and a city in Maryland, depending on which side of the street you stand on. The community has a high concentration of Central American immigrants that impressed the hell out of me. They felt comfortable living in such a liberal area, knowing that the mostly white political leadership held favorable views on immigration and the like. Still, they did not trust those whites to secure their prosperity. I was always amazed at their dedication to a certain grocery store that catered to them. Although there was a nicer, fancier Giant grocery store literally around the corner, they shopped at their grocery store. The produce wasn’t as fresh, the prices were sometimes slightly higher and it didn’t look nearly as nice as the Giant but still, they shopped there. All of the employees were Central American and the customers knew that shopping there, inconvenient as it may be, was the reason why. The same was true for a variety of other businesses and organizations in the neighborhood — not as fancy but the people lined up to support themselves, knowing they could not rely on me or anyone else to do so.
For generations black people have understood that we had to live differently than whites. Whites didn’t need to revolt against their masters or walk miles each way to work simply to make a point. After the Civil Rights bills of the 60’s however, it seems as though we’ve forgotten that. After the 1960’s too many of us believed that the day had come to trade in our struggle boots for lounge slippers. We wanted to sit at the same nice restaurants whites ate at and enjoy the same services. We simply wanted to live a life of enjoyment and yet we thought black progress would magically prevail. We honestly just want to go to work, get paid and enjoy our lives, just as other Americans do. Why should we have to, with every decision we make, be intentional about building up black institutions? Why should we have to limit our choices to the black community? Why should we have to inconvenience ourselves by sometimes accepting the objectively inferior, like my old neighbors in Takoma Park did? Our grandmothers would get out of their graves and slap us silly for even asking. They lived with constant inconvenience to free us of chains. They walked miles to work and yet won’t drive a little further to a different bank or search on the internet a little longer to find black institutions to fund rather than the conventional nonprofits we give to for tax write-offs. Shame on us for dishonoring their legacy.
We have to confront the reality that black progress has always required inconvenience and always will. No, you can’t just go to your white university, write them a check, move into a “nice neighborhood” and shop at the same stores your neighbors do, go to your nice job and expect black people universally to progress. That strategy has not worked for 50 years and it won’t work next year, either. White folks don’t have to think about how every single decision they make will impact the security of white people. Black people do and while it is unfair and inconvenient, it’s the world we have. The Kerner Commission in 1968 identified “white racism” as the key factor producing gross inequality between races. Since then, black unemployment and incarceration have increased — racism isn’t going away tomorrow, deal with it.
McDonald’s started in 1940 and 50 years later posted $800 million in profit. A lot can happen in 50 years with dedication and yes, sacrifice (another nice word for inconvenience). I know what I’m suggesting isn’t sexy. We are no longer slaves or living under Jim Crow and yet I’m saying we should commit to less comfort, more inconvenience and at times restrict our choices to that which is inferior, for the greater good. Who wants to do that? You are absolutely free to reject my advice but as we sit here today Hispanics have a lower unemployment rate than blacks. No, they haven’t endured the continuing hell we do in America but they aren’t hopeful that white folks will somehow save them, either. Said another way, you remember the definition of insanity, right?